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Social Proof Can Help People Help Other People

December 1, 2020 | Influence and Persuasion

Social proof helps you do hard things by watching other people do those things.

The original research on social proof showed helpful effects for difficult behaviors like the following:

  • quitting drinking
  • avoiding self-harm
  • suicide
  • changing negative thinking and perspective

Dr. Robert Cialdini, who coined the term, says social proof can lead to “the elimination of undesirable behavior” in his 1984 book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

Ironically, it was Cialdini’s book that popularized the term ‘social proof’ and turned it from an obscure psychology concept into a ‘Weapon of Influence’ (Cialdini’s term) for internet marketers.

Cialdini traces social proof from the original research in Social Learning Theory conducted by Dr. Albert Bandura and other psychologists in the 1960s and 1970s.

people with alcoholism at a meeting

Alcoholics at an AA meeting where social proof is used to ‘effect positive behavior change’ (Cialdini)

How Social Proof is used today

  • The use of social proof has changed with the growth of the Internet
  • Which type of social proof works best online?
  • Why don’t professional credentials persuade people online anymore?
  • How can Social Proof help people improve their behavior?
  • What are mirror neurons?
  • How did Dr. Miami help his patients with his Social Proof online?
  • How should doctors use Social Proof on websites?

Today though, social proof is used primarily by internet marketers to sell stuff online – they are called Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) experts and their tool is the websites you visit.

The Use of Social Proof has Changed with the Internet

Google Trends chart of the growth in the term 'Social Proof' keyed into the Google Search Box
Google Trends chart of the growth in the term ‘Social Proof’ keyed into the Google Search Box

The use of the term ‘social proof’ has increased over the years the internet has been around, ~1991 to the present (Google only gives us data from 2006, though).

Social proof has morphed from meaning ‘show people how to do hard things’ – like quit drinking – to ‘3rd party validation’ – as in how to sell stuff online.

Internet marketers and Conversion Rate Optimization experts claim there are at least 64 types of social proof. Social scientists and psychologists say there are only 2 types of social proof:

  1. Informational Social Proof
  2. Normative Social Proof

Maybe there is a reason that internet marketers have increased the ‘types’ of social proof they use – all of these ‘types’, by the way, fit into #1 above – informational social proof.

Website operators need social proof online to build trust with buyers. The 64 types of social proof marketers use to sell online can be categorized into the following four groups:

  • Influencer testimonials (celebrities, users, customers. etc,)
  • Review aggregators (the ‘wisdom of crowds’, Yelp, Google My Business, etc.)
  • Trust icons (brand logos, awards, badges, etc.)
  • Credentials (doctors, licensed professionals, academic degrees, etc.)

Which Type of Social Proof Works Best Online?

Influencer testimonials are the strongest form of social proof online, as determined by Conversion Rate Optimization experts (it’s not even close).

  1. Influencer Testimonials are recommended over 52% of the time (blue graph below) on websites to sell stuff.
  2. Review Aggregators, like Yelp, about 26% of the time (red)
  3. Trust Icons, Badges and Awards are used about 7% of the time (orange).
  4. Credentials of professionals, such as doctors are used less than 5% of the time (green).
Are Credentials Dead Online?
Graph showing the relative frequencies of the 4 types of social proof used online

This data is survey data, taken from public-facing blogs of the CRO experts listed here:

You can be sure that the CRO specialists would NOT be using Influencer Testimonials 53.1% of the time on their websites – next to the Call to Action button – if it DID NOT influence the site visitor to SMASH that button!

But, what about professional Credentials? That itty-bitty green bar graph all the way to the left in the chart? Didn’t see that? Can’t blame you.

Online CRO specialists only use professional Credentials 4.7% of the time. Why is that?

Do professional credentials still persuade people?

Of course they work – offline, IRL.

I still follow my doctor’s advice (mostly). I still call a licensed electrician or contractor when something in my house stops working.

So, why not online?

Why Don’t Professional Credentials Persuade People Online?

The E-commerce model doesn’t seem to work as well when professional Credentials (such as a doctors’ license) is used as social proof – that’s the conclusion we’ve reached from looking at the graph above. Here’s the evidence and the data gathered at ‘Are Credentials Dead Online?”

Even the use of the term ‘social proof’ is changing – once used mainly by doctors and scientists to describe how to show people how to do hard things – social proof today simply means ‘3rd party validation’ so people will buy more stuff.

How Can Social Proof Help People Improve Their Behavior?

Some of the disorders treated by CBT include the following:

  • anxiety and panic disorders
  • depression
  • substance abuse
  • alcoholism
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • eating disorders
  • chronic pain
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

The most common technique is called Exposure Therapy – here is an example of Exposure Therapy – the same as used by Dr. Albert Bandura when he was first developing Social Learning Theory.

An Example of Social Proof Used to Help People

People who are afraid of snakes – called Ophidiophobia – are treated with Exposure Therapy. The snakes used in this treatment are small and harmless.

  1. First, the patient is shown a picture of a snake.
  2. Then, they are shown a picture of a person holding a snake.
  3. The patient is brought into a room with a window and, through the window, they see the same person holding the snake.
  4. A box is brought into the room with the patient and they are told the box contains a snake. The box is placed at the far end of the room.
  5. The box is placed on a table near the patient.
  6. The box is handed to the patient.
  7. The doctor removes the snake from the box and handles the snake in front of the patient.
  8. The doctor hands the snake to the patient.

The patient is gradually exposed to the snake – and to the idea of handling the snake himself/herself – and in this way creates a positive mental image that leads to a positive behavior change (handling the snake).

In this way, they lose their fear of the snake.

Dr. Bandura figured out how to help people with phobias and drug addictions over 50 years ago but he didn’t fully understand the biology by which social proof improved human behavior.

Not until the 1990’s when mirror neurons were discovered in the brains of monkeys and humans:

They were first discovered in the early 1990s, when a team of Italian researchers found individual neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys that fired both when the monkeys grabbed an object and also when the monkeys watched another primate grab the same object.

APA website

What Are Mirror Neurons?

Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action. 

APA website

Mirror neurons have tremendous implications for social media marketers in 2021 – we discuss these implications in both the Social Proof Rule and the Proximity Rule that we discuss on the blog.

In fact, psychologist V.S. Ramachandran, PhD, has called the discovery of mirror neurons one of the “single most important unpublicized stories of the decade.”

APA website

How Doctors Help Patients with Social Proof Online

We discuss Dr. Miami quite a bit. Dr. Miami is one of the worlds’ leading experts in generating attention online. Here is an image from Dr. Miami’s Snapchat feed – only watch it if you have the stomach for it!

Dr. Miami patient lying on the operating table
Dr. Miami patient lying on the operating table

Dr. Miami shows the standard before and after photos of the Mommy Makeover: a woman getting…

  • a tummy tuck
  • a breast augmentation and
  • a liposuction all at once

BUT, he also shows the ENTIRE surgical procedure from START to FINISH:

  • anesthetised patient, fully EXPOSED, on the table
  • skin marking
  • initial cut
  • insertion of instruments
  • blood
  • the sound of liposuction removing fat nodules

What good is this video for? Is it simply salacious skin and gratuitous gore?

Who shares this stuff? Is it only grossed-out teenagers each trying to out-gross their jaded friends with over-the-top internet extremism?

Or, are real people watching and, seeing other real people depicted in Dr. Miami’s videos, gaining information, validation and even courage to try these procedures themselves?

Dr. Miami’s videos are the social proof that has long been needed in the medical and surgical industries.

Medicine and surgery have long been shrouded in secrecy – mainly to protect patients’ privacy and provide safety.

But, this privacy and safety has hampered the public from seeing and understanding what goes on in the operating room.

Dr. Miami’s Snapchat videos have disrupted that old model, sharing secrets long known only to doctors and nurses. The public, needless to say, LOVES it.

Perhaps Dr. Miami’s surgery videos will help someone make the choice to improve their self-image, lose weight and feel better about themselves.

“We believe that plastic surgery empowers and transforms lives. We recognize it takes courage to change. We help our patients through their journey by providing the best plastic surgery experience in the safest environment. Our mission is to encourage the beauty and self-confidence our patients desire.”

Dr. Miami’s Homepage:

How Should Doctors Use Social Proof on Websites?

Doctors should use social proof to help people do hard things by watching other people do those things:

  • cosmetic surgery patients becoming a better version of themselves
  • physical therapy patients working hard to recover skills and abilities
  • cancer patients undergoing painful treatments that save their lives
  • obese patients changing their diet to lose weight
  • diabetic patients sticking to a regimen to control blood sugar
  • smokers who quit smoking because smoking kills

Dr. Miami shows people how to overcome their fear of surgery in order to become the best version of themselves.

Doctors, therapists, dentists and other helping professions should think about the barriers that prevent people from obtaining their needed services – barriers like the following:

  • fear
  • confusion
  • uncertainty
  • social stigma
  • ignorance
  • prejudice
  • racism
  • body image shaming

…then, doctors should use social proof online to help their patients do the hard things necessary to get better and improve their lives.

This is how doctors and other credentialed professionals will regain legitimate online influence and be able to help more people.

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